Sunday 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Longlist, Neshwin Almeida

The Orange Truck

If it’s the earth he is fighting for, if it’s his land he wants to battle for, feed him some mud, and fill his mouth with soil…….

If I look down this road,
It’s not so old, I know.
Ain't it white like snow,
But somehow painted in gold.
And when I’m lost and torn,
A solder of orange, I
- Dandy Warhols

Rina, the government nurse came up to Ramu, “Boy, two tablets each till the pain subsides, use the ointment on the wounds and come back in two weeks to remove the cast. Please use your crutches while walking or the ligament tear will take long to heal”, she said.

“Argggggh, stop being a mom, got that and thanks a lot for all the trouble taken by the nurses and the doctors during my stay here,” Ramu said signing the discharge papers and heading down the stairs of the Hospicio Government Hospital, Margao.

His hip felt sore while waiting for the taxi and Ramu sat down on the steps and his mind went back to the many times he had suffered pain through the years. Because he stood up against the people he once dreamed to work for. Because he had not liked his village cough up in the dust. The rich had rewarded Ramu with a broken arm, a dislocated wrist, torn ligaments around his knee and scars all over his body.

“Why lord oh, why?” he wondered. Education was a curse. The knowledge to question life had gotten innocent Ramu the hammering of his life. Just as he was engrossed in all those thoughts, the prepaid taxi pulled in the driveway.

“Getting out of the hospital will take while, the orange trucks have caused a traffic jam at the hospital gate,” said Dinesh kaka as he helped Ramu into the cab.

‘The orange truck, huh’ sighed Ramu. The orange truck always caused a knot in Ramu’s stomach. Though these trucks carried construction material for the hospital renovation but they still made him perspire.

“Where to go young man? Where should I drop you? Hope you are fine with all those bandages and bruises”, asked Dinesh kaka, the old taxi driver. Dinesh had promised Ramu that, he would fetch him from the hospital. Scared to go home, Ramu replied, “Chandreshwar Monte kaka. Want to sit behind the temple on the mount for a while and watch those dusty mines below.” Ramu was lost in thought and the 33 kilometre journey seemed forever. His mind went back to the time he was four years old. In all that pain and bruises all that, Ramu could remember was pain. Pain when he was first hit.

“Don’t cry child; see Ronny is looking at you. He gets sad when you cry”, Aji (mother) said pointing to the pariah dog she had adopted since it turned up at their house three years earlier. But Ramu continued to cry. “Look at the trucks my child. Nice and flashy orange. Don’t you like their horn? Don’t you like it when they speed past our house,” Aji tried distracting Ramu with the sparkling clean trucks parked in front. The trucks were washed by Dada (Ramu’s father) in the afternoon.
Ramu was weeping because Dada had hit him in a drunken frenzy for no reason at all. Ramu loved his father but hated him when he got drunk. Those shiny orange trucks that Dada washed always made Ramu happy. But he wanted to know why they passed his house every day.

Each evening, as a kid, Ramu stood outside their two-room palm thatched cottage house, at Quepem, watching the trucks pass by. The bad road ahead would create a huge traffic jam and often 150 of these trucks would line up outside Ramu’s house. The smoky trucks dropped shinny black stones that he would collect, wondering what they were.
When Ramu got home from his first day at third grade in primary school, Aji asked him. “So what did you learn today lucky child? We never went to any school. The potatoes in the field were more important”

“Aji! I can now read. I learned words.  Blow Horn Ok; the words on each of those orange trucks Dada washes, I can read them,” Ramu said with a smile.
Trucks: washed one’s, dirty one’s with mining dust, broken one’s and truck spare parts. That’s all Ramu’s childhood revolved around. One of those scrap truck panels doubled up as a column of the dingy primary school roof that Ramu studied in. Those same flashy words Blow Ok Horn were still visible on that rusty column.

Life changed when Ramu was six. Aji fell ill; she had a kidney failure and was moved to the Goa medical college at Panjim.
Dada told Ramu, “Aji may not come back, she’s too ill.”
Ramu didn’t believe him.
Ramu would tell the neighbours when they inquired about Aji, “she will come back. Aji will take me on those walks when she visits the fields. She will complete that bedtime story of the dust that flies out of those hills every day.”
Aji promised to tell Ramu what a crane was and why that sticky sludge appeared in front of their house every monsoon.
Aji did return. But she didn’t talk or walk. She was brought back lying down by the weeping relatives.

Ramu hated Dada that evening because he put her on a bed of wooden logs and set her on fire.  Ramu wondered why Dada cried when he did that.
After that instead of primary school, Ramu was enrolled for night school. Standing outside the cottage and watching the orangetrucks was a thing of the past. Before school Dada would take Ramu to his garage. Here the orange trucks came dirty and Dada washed them. Ramu would fetch the soap water and diesel stain remover for Dada.

Dada never again spoke about Aji but he changed. He stopped drinking. Ramu was never hit by a drunken Dada ever again. Years passed by. Ramu learnt new things.
Ramu realised Dada never burnt Aji but he lit her pyre. He realised his mother died of a failed kidney because of contaminated water. Ramu learnt in school how everyday one or two deaths occurred in his village the same way.
Dada said he wanted Ramu to study and not wash trucks like he did. He wanted his son to be a big man and get out of the village.

Often over dinner Dada chatted about those days when the village was a picturesque postcard with clean rivers, green hills on all sides, golden fields and clean air to breathe. But all that had changed since the mining companies realised Ramu’s village had iron ore under the earth. When the miner’s realised they could sell all that ore for a fortune to China, Japan and Cuba, they brought Godzilla-sized cranes that scraped the earth, moved boulders, tore the hills and ripped the trees of the village.
The river turned brown with mining sediments; the fields no longer yielded crops. The land the ground water was contaminated, and every plant, every roof, and every place in the village was covered with dust. But the village depended on these miners for money and jobs. The kids depended on the miners for better schools and free sports gear every Independence Day.

Ramu grew up resenting the orange trucks. He did not want to shine them. He would not help the miners who killed Aji. Ramu did not want to collect those shiny stones called ore neither did he want these miners in his village anymore. “I don’t admire the blow ok horn orange monsters. I want to the blow horn monsters to get out of my village,” Ramu told Dada at dinner one night.

When Ramu was in class ten, despite helping Dada to wash those trucks before school, he managed to get an ‘A’ grade at the state exams and he bagged a scholarship from the Panchayat to study further. This got him a seat in the junior college in Panjim. A scholarship that came from an Italian mining firm in Goa. But he had to take it though he knew it was them why Aji was no more.
Panjim was different from the village. There were no dust and no ore carrying orange trucks. The city had beaches that thrived on tourism. City lights and vehicle glows was all that buzzed in the city. There were no palm thatched huts like his house but huge buildings that peered over the streets. But there were many taverns selling alcohol and the girls showing their sizzling hot legs in class. Sex, nicotine and alcohol was what every kid in his class adored. But Ramu stayed focussed. He studied science and then signed up for university to study geology. He wanted to study about these shiny black rocks and those miners interest.

He could only go home once a month. Catching multiple buses and walking eight kilometres in dust to go meet Dada was hard. But he never hitched a ride from the orange trucks. As years passed, he slowly stopped going home. He could not call Dada, as telephones in his village were a luxury and mobile phones never got range.

In college Ramu met Seby Rodrigues, a mining activist. Seby told him how miners strip Goa clean of its forest and mine every ore possible. He explained how the sediments of this unsustainable development were killing people. Goa had to be saved from the mining monsters that were crushing many poor families.

Ramu joined the ‘say no to mining campaign’ initiated by Seby. He decided to protest when the 150 trucks increased to 350 trucks and one of the mining trucks crushed a school girl on the bridge over the Valvanti River.

The truck drivers union blamed the villagers for not taking care of their kids. The trucks annoyed Ramu, the noisy drills and cranes angered him.

“I want this menace to stop,” Ramu said with tears in his eyes when he went from house to house.
Ramu studied more about the illegal mining in Goa. Little did he know that anti-mining rally in his village would get him beaten by the police and he would be arrested under false charges.
The mining lobby had the blessings of the MLAs and the Chief Minister of Goa. When he took up the issue of the miners with his local Panchayat, they smiled and told him how the miners had renovated the Panchayat Ghar, so he should shut up.

February 2009, Dada called Ramu on his cell phone to come home quickly. Dada sounded a little worried. He panicked, when he rushed home, Ramu saw nine fat goons standing beside his home, threatening to kill him, if he did not stop his anti-mining campaign.

One evening Ramu was watching a 4000 feet deep mining cavity where huge boulders were scraped out of the earth. The chief engineer of the mine caught him staring at the mining activity, and chased him over the hillock and slapped him for spying and lobbying against them. Ramu was left red-faced in front of 300 mining labourers.
Whenever Ramu walked on the streets at home crane owners tried to run him down. The mining lobby was trying to draw first blood out of him.

“On graduating he worked on a petty salary for an NGO that campaigned against mining. One day he receive a letter threatening him and along with it was a fifty thousand rupee cheque, telling him to shut-up. Life had started to change. He was a public enemy to those who survived on mining. The menace was big and his fight small. People against mining, now laughed at him”
As the hills and acacia trees disappeared from the village, and people were relocated out to expand mining operations his cry became a whimper. People were too scared to raise a voice or they were paid off to shut up.

Ramu suddenly felt searing pain in his knee. Dinesh kaka had suddenly applied his brakes because of a speed breaker. Ramu knees hit the dashboard. The pain was back. 
The orange trucks may never bring joy to Ramu’s heart or may be the fear of another painful storm in his life but the orange trucks will always Blow Horn Ok and carry this dust to the nearest port. He could not give up… he had to do something about them.

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